The US rock newcomers headlined the third day of Serbia's EXIT festival, alongside Tom Walker and Dub FX
EXIT festival gives up its secrets gradually. Every night you spend wandering the courtyards and alleyways of the Petrovaradin Fortress in the middle of the Danube, you find new, hidden treasures. Venture down a random tunnel and you might discover a cinema dome showing films of space exploration and dark matter, or blacklit catacomb bars full of neon-painted party kids. Duck through a space in a rampart and you’ll likely come across a whole new stage where the in-the-know go to bug out. It’s like Tomb Raver.
Greta Van Fleet are one EXIT secret that’s spread like wildfire, though. The rock community have been slavering over them since their debut single ‘Highway Tune’ topped the US mainstream rock chart in 2017, and with an international hit album under their snakeskin belts (last year’s ‘Anthem Of The Peaceful Army’), they’re now starting to make moves on the upper echelons of the European festival bills.
And what moves – they arrive at midnight like they’ve stepped straight out of a wormhole from 1976. There are flowing zebra pattern shirts. There is a bare-chested drummer in a waistcoat, hammering out a solo in just the second song. Guitarist Jake Kiszka wastes no time in proving himself a florid finger ninja, and his singing brother Josh prowls the stage in a navel-flashing future rock shirt, sprayed-on white trousers and eagle feather hair adornments, throwing flowers into the crowd and wailing helium vocals through the roaring bluster of ‘Cold Wind’ and ‘Safari Song’ like a munchkin Robert Plant.
They’ve clearly studied the set texts of classic ‘70s rock – ‘Back In Black’, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, ‘Paranoid’ – but they’re not hemmed in by their rules. ‘Black Smoke Rising’ and ‘Flower Power’ particularly rejuvenate the genre with stirring choruses, infectious hooks and hearty chipmunk bellows, the latter coming across like a cock rock War On Drugs. Their cover of Labi Siffre’s ‘Watch Me’ is more levitating country rock, verging on – gulp – Genesis. They might indulge at quite some length in the time-worn tradition of the monster rock-out, but they sure ain’t no Darkness.
Indulgent, though? You could say that. “We’re going to travel into savage territory and Jake will be our Sherpa,” Josh tells the crowd at the set’s mid-point, “feel free to melt right into it.” And with a flurry of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ arpeggios, the band set off on a forty-minute trek into the doomy blues rock undergrowth, tracking the trails of Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin using some kind of mystic voodoo powers. There are prog rock freak outs akin to falling into lava pits, plenty of rolling tribal blues thunder overhead and bits that feel like trudging through swampland. But it all rolls to a close with the stomping AC/DC heft of ‘When The Curtain Falls’ and GVF stride back into their wormhole leaving sticks, picks and a heady sense of history re-evaluated.
Earlier on the main stage Tom Walker – the fisherman of soul trawling for young Serbian hearts – has a crack at a similar sort of bombast, lacing his big soul bellows with EDM kick-offs and electronic crescendos. His everyman charm is offset with a vengeful streak tonight – he hopes the robbers who stole his two favourite guitars from the back of his van “get hit by a bus” before the Latino epic ‘Karma’ and describes ‘Dominoes’ to “my two fingers to the news, because they really are bastards”. But no matter how human his persona, as he sings songs about getting dumped at nineteen (‘Fade Away’, delivered like a heartbroken Fozzie Bear), falling for his wife (‘Just You And I’) and losing friends to drugs (‘Leave A Light On’), as his standard chart soul songs reach yet another ‘emotional’ climax and ‘Not Giving In’ breaks into a full-on rave section, his music sounds endlessly calculated, as if someone in a boardroom bit a cigar in half and demanded ‘find me an EDM Rag’n’Bone Man, and if you can’t find one, make me one!’.
With thunderstorms forecast for tomorrow’s last day, the EXIT tribe hits the beats hard on Saturday. At the eye-blitzing Dance Arena, Satori throws a stage party to his tense washes of Afrotronic sound, layered with Arabian flute riffs and his own AI-filtered vocals. Later, Adriatique quake the ramparts with walls of solid techno. On the main stage Dub FX provides a refreshing alternative from all the spacebar DJs, building his beats from beatboxing, hisses, clicks, whomps and ghostly throat singing, all voice-generated and looped into ragga rave stampedes, like he’s an electro Ed Sheeran.
It’s all in stark contrast to the sunset sounds up at the Addiko Fusion stage, where Sixth June (pictured) spin out crepuscular tapestries of Numanoid bleakness, doomy crypt pop and vampire disco, carried along by Lidija Andonov’s frail, fragile vocals. EXIT closes tonight (July 7) with a final headline set by Skepta as well as sets from Desiigner and IAMDBB.